COVID-19 language in waivers for extracurriculars heighten reopening safety concerns

Dive Brief:

  • Districts are sending home liability waivers for athletic, afterschool and summer programs that release them, employees, insurers, board of education members and others acting on the district’s behalf from liability for injuries to or death of children related in any way to COVID-19. At least one district in Idaho is also requiring a waiver for seemingly any on-campus activity
  • In Missouri’s Hazelwood School District, criticism of such a waiver led the district to clarify that the waiver is meant to “ensure that parents can make an informed decision” about their children participating in athletics, and that no waiver exists for in-person school. According to the district, the waiver was created by its insurance provider and distributed to all other schools under the same insurance program. 
  • In Florida’s Volusia County Schools, liability waivers for voluntary extracurricular activities were recalled by the district, which says they were “inadvertently” sent to coaches and students. The local teachers union, Volusia United Educators, advised members to “not sign any waivers” and presented the district with a “cease and desist” letter. Officials from the Florida Education Association suggested waivers will intensify concerns of whether it’s safe for children to return to school.

Dive Insight:

As schools face increasing pressure from the White House to fully reopen in the fall, parents, teachers and even administrators are questioning whether it is in the best interest of the community’s health and safety to do so. Some big districts, including California’s Los Angeles and San Diego Unified School Districts, have decided to remain remote for the fall as coronavirus cases in the state increase. 

Others are pushing forward with reopening plans. In Florida, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis compared reopening the state’s schools to reopening a Walmart, saying the former should be just as possible as the latter. Last week, the state’s commissioner of education ordered schools to reopen brick-and-mortar classrooms at least five days a week for all students.

The question of liability as schools near reopening is being considered on the federal and state level. In a U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing last month, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), raised concerns about protecting schools from facing liability related to COVID-19. 

The Tennessee Senate recently passed a bill protecting schools and businesses from liability in case of coronavirus-related injury or death. 

Generally, waivers aren’t out of the ordinary for athletics and other voluntary extracurricular activities. That coronavirus language has been added, particularly given the increased risk of contraction during some sports, isn’t particularly surprising. For that reason, many districts are opting to forego fall athletics, with New Mexico last week becoming the first state to do so for football and soccer.

In Missouri, Hazelwood School District’s clarification message about athletic waivers read, “Our district has implemented unprecedented safety precautions in all of our buildings; however, it is important for parents to understand that school districts can only mitigate the risk of COVID-19. No district, organization, or business can offer 100% protection against exposure to a global pandemic.” 

Brian Schwartz, an education lawyer who has served as general counsel for the Illinois Principals Association for 20 years, told Education Dive last week that schools can minimize liability by following local, state and national mandates, especially regarding PPE and social distancing.

“Liability might exist if a school requires students and staff to attend in-person and then refuses to follow mandated safety protocols,” he said.

Source Article